Conducting is exorbitantly expensive. LA Co-op offers a corrective

A group of musicians meet in a garage at the end of a cul-de-sac in Beachwood Canyon. Furnished with a couch, area rugs, mood lighting, sound equipment and an upright piano, this garage is destined to rip.

But on this particular evening – silence. Welcome to the Hollywood Hills’ quietest garage band session and the inaugural Los Angeles Conducting Co-op gathering, where some nights the instruments are silent and the music is only in your head.

The Los Angeles Conducting Co-op is a new organization founded by violinist and producer Lisa Liu, conductor Christopher Rountree and violist, curator and broadcaster Nadia Sirota. Their mission is simple: “pool resources to meet the cost of studying symphonic conducting.”

The group first met in June last year. Sirota donated the space – she owns this garage/rehearsal/studio/meeting place affectionately known as the “fairground room”. Rountree volunteered to be the workshop trainer. And Sirota, Liu and the other handful of Co-op participants each paid $500 to study the art of conducting in a supportive environment and practice conducting in front of an ensemble of their peers.

A music book and a baton.

There are tools of the trade in Nadia Sirota’s garage in Hollywood, where she and other musicians hold conducting workshops.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

The first night they focused on technique, delving into the details of score analysis, complex rhythms, subtle arm and hand gestures, even facial expressions and posture. They stabbed blank white sheets of paper with their batons and then practiced snapping their wrists in a jerky motion, causing the punctured pieces of paper to fly from the tips of their sticks.

They also sat in a circle and conducted an imaginary orchestra in unison and in silence, simultaneously hearing the music in their minds while following their identical scores. “Like some crazy ESPs,” says Sirota.

Like instrumentalists, conductors need to hone their skills through regular practice. To a certain extent, they can do this themselves, by meticulously studying a score until they hear each part in their head exactly how they want it to sound, and then studying the gestures they use to elicit the sound they want from an orchestra.

“You can reach that safe place in silence because you summoned this ethereal, non-existent thing,” says Sirota. “And then musicians come along and what you’re hearing so loud in your head isn’t exactly what’s happening in real life.”

Conducting students at conservatories and major music schools have access to orchestras because their fellow students, as members of student ensembles, provide cheap or unpaid labor. But outside of educational institutions, musicians rightly expect to be paid for their skills and time, so hiring an orchestra is prohibitively expensive.

“That puts a big hurdle in what kind of people become conductors,” says Sirota. “It takes a significant financial outlay, and we were trying to figure out how to create opportunities that just don’t cost that much.”

A woman holds a baton.

“You can reach that safe place in silence because you summoned this ethereal, non-existent thing,” said Nadia Sirota.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Sirota and her fellow members are all accomplished professional musicians – members of elite orchestras, sought-after contract musicians, a film composer – who have spent their conservatory years honing their skills on their instruments. Now they want to add conducting to their skillset without spending many thousands of dollars on private tutors or going back to school.

Conductorship education “happens in a maelstrom of insane privilege,” says Sirota. “Just having the opportunity to study music at that level and not being paid for really long. … It’s a privilege to learn how to do something like that.”

Liu and Sirota both sought conducting lessons during the pandemic. Liu soon had a residency that required some conducting, so she began taking private lessons with Jonathan Merrill, who teaches orchestral conducting as part of the UCLA Extension film music program. Sirota reached out to Rountree, her friend and the founder, conductor and creative director of the innovative chamber group wild up.

Throughout 2020, Sirota and Rountree would sporadically meet informally at Griffith Park, masquerading, sitting on blankets 6 feet apart and directing their way through the repertoire. “We were out there waving our arms and diving deep into the score,” says Rountree. “And then someone would miss the bassoon entrance, but of course there is no bassoon.”

A woman holds a baton and poses for a photo.

Lisa Liu is part of the team that runs the Los Angeles Conductors Co-op.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Liu and Sirota both wanted time in front of an orchestra to test the techniques they had learned in their private lessons in front of real musicians, rather than imaginary ones. They hatched a plan; Maybe they could find some friends who would join them and be each other’s orchestra.

Through social media, they rounded up a motley group of friends and colleagues who also wanted to try their hand at conducting. After that first night of quiet practice, they met again to make some noise, took turns conducting, and then played in the small orchestra when someone else had the baton.

In the spirit of a cooperative, all participants’ workshop fees went to the orchestra musicians, mainly themselves, plus some additional people who came in to fill the tiers. After members were paid for their time in the group’s orchestra, the actual cost of the workshop was only $250.

“We try to keep the prices as low as possible,” says Sirota. “It’s like a one-to-one exchange, only musicians get paid. That’s basically where our entire budget goes.”

Three musicians conducting.

Lisa Liu, from left, Nadia Sirota and Christopher Rountree at a conducting session.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Sirota, who recently turned 40, has been interested in conducting since high school. “But our generation grew up in this old-school classical music mode where being a conductor is an incredible flex. I sensed how strong that was going to be and I said, ‘You know what? I’ll play the viola because I know I can be successful at it,” she says.

For centuries, white male conductors have literally been put on pedestals in the orchestral world. Her task seemed elusive because it was intended for so many women and people of color who were systematically prevented or discouraged from learning this elegant and rewarding musical skill. Today the field is rapidly diversifying, but the vast majority of top orchestral jobs are still held by white men and barriers still exist, including financial ones.

Sirota’s generation of classical musicians has little patience for old modes and barriers. By creating the cooperative, Sirota has effectively created her own way of studying conducting in an affordable, supportive and accessible way. And she brings others with her.

That first garage workshop was so successful (and just plain fun) that the group organized a second one to take place in late November, this time in a donated rehearsal space at UCLA, where Sirota has served as artist in residence.

“Ultimately, we would like to raise funds,” she says. She wants Rountree to be paid for his time and the musicians to be paid more. “We’re absolutely keen on expanding, but in a way that still feels intimate.”

A man poses for a photo.

Christopher Rountree volunteers to be the trainer of the workshop.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Like any good garage band, Liu, Rountree, and Sirota look forward to moving to bigger and better spaces and growing as an organization, and they’re equally determined to stay true to the supportive spirit of the co-op and their “rumpus room.” Root.

A stack of music.

Sheet music is piled high in Nadia Sirota’s Hollywood garage, where she and other musicians hold conducting workshops.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times) Conducting is exorbitantly expensive. LA Co-op offers a corrective

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